And yet …
Yesterday, I participated as an instructor in a class inside a state prison in Wisconsin. There were twelve inmates, four instructors and three dogs. It was the second class. This was the first time that dogs were introduced to the inmates. The class is preliminary to the inmates getting dogs that they will train – inside the prison – to become guide dogs for the blind. Next week, the first dog will go to live inside a prison cell with two of the inmates, and in following weeks, more dogs will be added until the twelve inmates have six dogs living in their cells.
It took half an hour for us to get passed into the prison. The exchange of ID’s, taking off belts and shoes and passing through the metal detector, the wait for the staff escort, the opening and closing of sallyports, the walk across the yard to the mess hall where the class was to be held …
The inmates had the mess hall re-arranged for the class according to instructions they had previously received. All tables and chairs were pushed against the walls. There was a large circle of chairs, and in the middle, three dog crates, each with a water bowl and a food bowl outside it, and a Kurunda bed for training.
We arrived with the dogs and the class began. For the first half hour, the lead instructor spoke to the inmates about the dogs. Then the three dogs were turned over to the inmates – one inmate at a time – so they could begin to practice how to take care of and train the dogs. How do you put the dog in its vest and take the vest off? How do you put on the leader collar? How do you get the dog into the crate? Out of the crate? How do you feed the dog? How do you hold the leash? How do you walk with the dog? How do you dispense treats? What kind of treats? How do you talk to the dog? How do you take the dog to poop?
Here's the deal. This is it. Right here.
The first inmate took the leash of the first dog. It was fucking electric. He was nervous. Unsure. Tentative. The dog was chill. I was on fire. Every moment that passed, the inmate became more confident, the dog became more responsive. The room lit up. I took a breath. Then another inmate took charge of a dog. Then another. Then another. Eventually, all of them practiced walking the dogs. I walked beside them one at a time, coaching them, encouraging them, as they took their first steps as raisers of guide dogs for the blind.
I don’t know these inmates. I don’t know anything about them other than that they are in prison and that they were chosen by prison staff for this program. I don’t know how long they have been there. I don’t know how long their remaining sentences are. I don’t know what convictions they have behind them. I don’t know if they have family outside the prison who care for them or if they are alone in the world. I don’t know about their education, their backgrounds, their work experiences. I don’t know anything about them.
I do know this. Those twelve inmates fell in love with those three dogs. And for the hour that they were working with the dogs, they weren’t in prison anymore.
I know from my own experience, fifty years removed, what that feels like. I remember being transported, when I was in prison, by certain activities. Activities which allowed me to forget, for a while, that I was in prison.
What a gift to give to give these inmates on Thanksgiving week. What a gift for me to be able to give it. And what a gift these inmates will give, eventually, when the first dog that has been trained at this prison is given to a blind person.